The government’s Clean Growth Strategy, which was launched in October 2017, states that heating in buildings and industry creates around 32% of total UK emissions.
If we are to get anywhere near the ambitious (and legally binding) carbon reduction targets by 2050, heating is therefore a natural target for efficiency and carbon emissions improvement.
As a nation, we have committed to cutting our carbon emissions to 80% of 1990 levels by 2050 (via the Climate Change Act).
So far, we have been successful in meeting the first three interim targets, but now, the low-hanging fruit is really starting to get scarce. That means we need to aim higher because we now need to advance from 2023 to 2032 with ever-greater cuts in carbon.
According to the government’s Strategy: “Meeting our target of reducing emissions by at least 80% by 2050 implies decarbonising nearly all heat in buildings and most industrial processes.”
What this means for the nation and for housing providers in particular, is that the big target is our gas-dependent heating systems.
The government’s strategy document names this as one of the ‘Grand Challenges’ recognising that heating is the most difficult decarbonisation challenge facing the country.
A massive change
As a nation, we have been through major change in how we heat our buildings in the past, with almost the entire country switching to natural gas in the decade before 1977. This saw around 40 million appliances converted by British Gas.
Now we face a similar massive change as we need to transition away from carbon-intensive gas.
Yet even today, around 150,000 new customers a year are connected to the gas network, so we remain heavily reliant on the use of gas.
However, this will simply not allow us to move to the low carbon future we are committed to and it is also clear that there is no single answer or easy solution.
The social housing sector has long led the way in the use of renewable heating, such as heat pumps but in the main, this has been applied in off-gas areas to help combat fuel poverty.
One of the major hurdles to decarbonisation is that at the moment, almost 70% of the UK’s heat for industry, commercial buildings and homes comes from natural gas.
Government is therefore analysing how it can offer a clear post-RHI framework for domestic and non-domestic buildings through to the 2030s, with one of the key aims being to reduce barriers to low carbon heating.
We are all well aware that there is no single solution to replace natural gas as the source of our heat and the government is considering a number of technologies in the long-term, which offer potential for decarbonising heat in the UK:
· Electrification (heat pumps)
· District heating
· Hybrid approach (two different heating technologies and energy sources working together)
· Decarbonising the gas grid (using hydrogen or biogas)
The history of gas use in Britain has already been through major upheavals in the past and now, it is highly likely that this will happen again, not only because of the far greater focus on environmental issues, but also because supply and demand continue to change and households are also more switched on to the need for a more sustainable solution.
Is it now time for the social housing sector to look at all aspects of heating within its stock so that it can play its part in helping meet the renewable, low carbon agenda?